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Red Willow Spirit: Serpentine Waters

Rio Lucero 2 Resized

I said yesterday in this space that an encounter with Snake might prove profitable: that, if one appeared, he might bring the water with him. It’s much needed right now: By yesterday, the pond was again completely dry, the ditches still lined with damp mud but not a single drop of water flowing through their veins. The air has been hot and dry and dusty, strong winds driving the smoke of the El Rito fire before them to settle here around us at the foot of the peaks. Add to that the late flowering of the cottonwood trees, and spending time out of doors these days — or even opening a window — too often means coughing, congestion, the joys of burning eyes and irritated nasal passages.

But yesterday evening, only hours after I wrote of the possible abundance that the serpent might bring, water was once again flowing through the main ditch. It wasn’t a river, but it wasn’t a trickle, either. And last night, for the first night in recent memory, the skies held that perfect clarity associated more often with autumn than with impending summer.

We are back to wind and haze and drying ditches today, of course. But it’s a reminder that the great snake, the horned serpent, the copper river is another of the beings to whom we owe our continued existence.

Here at Red Willow, the lands are fed most immediately by the watershed of the Rio Lucero, a copper serpent who mostly wears liquid robes in the oxidizing color of weathering air and light — greenish, in other words, with rusty bronze undertones.

They are serpentine waters in other ways, too, winding and wending their way around, over, and through the various outcroppings that are the surface, here, of Mother Earth’s skin.

Rio Lucero 1 Resized

At this time of year, there are places in the river’s cascade that open up into rapids, small rough waterfalls in the middle of the fast-running flow.

Here, the serpent is the symbol for prosperity, for abundance . . . and in this place, there’s perhaps nothing that so perfectly embodies abundance than a deep riot of clear, active water. In this season, the copper snake is at its most visible, and most abundant. Upstream, it’s an elemental thing, a long, strong cascade full of small falls and little rapids and an undulating, pregnant belly that periodically overflows its banks. And like all such elemental spirits, it’s nothing to approach recklessly or disrespectfully: As surely as the serpent will bit, given sufficient provocation, so, too, will the flow grab the unwary with its fangs, first pulling you in, then pulling you under. It’s happened, although thankfully with vanishing rarity.

If you’re wondering why I call it the copper serpent, it’s a name not from this place, but from my own people, from one of the old stories that is one part cautionary tale, one part explanation of [then-]current events, one part backstory and fable for values in both senses of the word. In our cosmology, much is centered around the great waters, the lakes around which our ancestral lands emerged. I suspect that story belongs to groups of our people around all five lakes, each with their own at its center, but for us, it was always the Great Lake, the one on our western shore. This is the way it was told to me long ago:

The story told of an old man and his granddaughter, who were forced to make the perilous journey across it in their birch-bark canoe. It’s a dangerous trip at the best of times, including modern ones; the weather is notoriously capricious, and the waters with it, and the last major shipwreck on that body of water occurred much less than a century ago. Crossing a lake of that size in a birch-bark canoe? Even calm waters would put travelers at risk.

And, predictably, the waters on this day did not remain calm, despite the old man’s best efforts not to disturb them unduly. For beneath the surface of the lake lived the Great Water Serpent, a fearsome creature who controlled the waters and harnessed the storm to his own ends. When he was disturbed or angered, he would lash out, and his gigantic size would kick up stormy seas that would swamp even the largest, soundest vessels, and the old man and his granddaughter had only a small and rickety canoe. As the waters began to roil, the old man cautioned his granddaughter to stay in the center of the canoe, and not to rock it, in hopes that the serpent would be mollified. He prayed for help, and asked the best itself to let them pass unbothered, but the great snake was angry at them for disturbing his rest, and he began to lash the canoe with his tail. As it filled with water and rocked from side to side, threatening to capsize and drown them both, the old man called to the little girl again, his voice filled with fear. But the child instead grabbed an ax from the bottom of the canoe, and when the serpent lashed them again with his tail, she cut off the tip. Grandfather and great snake alike were dumbfounded, and the snake retreated in shock and pain to  nurse his wounds.

The grandfather pointed at the piece of the beast’s tail the little girl still held in her hands, and she looked down to see that it had turned to copper. They knew immediately that the metal was of great value, and the held it safely while they completed their journey and returned home. Upon reaching their village, this man and his granddaughter, humble people not known for wealth or materials things, were hailed for their success in defeating the water serpent, and for returning with something so obviously valuable. From that point forward, the old man’s status in the village changed, and his granddaughter’s with it: Whenever the people of the village were in need, they would come to the old man’s lodge and bring an offering, food, hides, beads, or whatever was available, and ask for a small piece of the copper. The old man and the little girl gave it freely, and there was always enough copper to ensure that everyone had what they needed.

I should point out here that these lands are known for their abundance of native copper. It’s easy to see how an ancient spirit being, one thought to live beneath the waters around which a culture is built, can become the source of the often-violent storms that lash the region, and simultaneously the source of a material that would indeed prove to have great value, particularly in the eyes of colonizing forces who would seize as much of the land and water as they could get.

It’s also easy to see how serpentine waters and the great snake who inhabits them become associated with notions of prosperity and abundance. And while the origin stories are different here in this place, they hold the water — and the waters, plural — as of the highest value.

In this place, bringing down the water is both seasonal task and sacred rite — not sacred in the sense of formal ceremony, but in the sense of the honor and respect with which the process is held privately in individual hearts. Here, it is brought down beneath a new kind of copper, not copper at all save in color, actually, but weathered iron and steel oxidized into a rusty approximation of the same hue.

At the Weir Resized

It, too, is an old system, and the work is done the old way, with the most modern conveniences involved being iron rebar and barbed wire and pipe wrenches. The weirs are often a combination of wooden plates and heavy stones and hand-filled sandbags, the gates turned by hand to route the flow, the ditching protecting by ancient wood posts and rusted metal plates and twists of wire.

And the water flows, a burbling, bubbling cascade, a sidewinding copper serpent undulating beneath coppery metal, one complex stream of elements and metals glowing in the sun.

Water Up Close Resized

Up close, it’s much like a serpent, too. As I said yesterday, copper beads and diamond backs — or, on the day Wings captured this image, diamond beads on a copper back.

The details of dress are far less important than what it embodies, which in this place is life’s blood and breath and existence itself.

And eventually, the water reaches its destination, and the land is sustained, even sated, by the gifts of the copper snake.

Below the Wire Resized

The serpent finds his path, wending through the grasses, around the rocks, below the wire: serpentine waters feeding the earth, shining in the light.

In this place, it matters less whether one brings down the water, or the water comes of its own accord. What matters is simply that it comes, and with it, it brings the gift of life itself.

And if the water serpent is the giver, he is to be honored in turn. It is, after all, hard to find a better example of abundance than that.

~ Aji













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